Football preview: Linebackers

Aug. 25, 2017, 3:01 a.m.

In a nutshell

In the David Shaw era, having a standout linebacker or two has generally led to good things for the Stanford Cardinal. Lucky for Shaw, he and defensive coordinator Lance Anderson have had a steady pipeline of talented players at the linebacker position over the years, from Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov to Blake Martinez and Kevin Anderson.

Last year, Stanford’s defense seemed to lack that one star in its linebacker core. Coming off the departures of Martinez and Anderson, the Cardinal’s lack of experience occasionally reared its ugly head. And when thinking about the brutal losses to Washington and Washington State last year, although there was trouble for Stanford all over the field, an overwhelmed linebacker unit carried a share of the blame for the Cardinal’s inability to come up with stops.

But with virtually all of the linebackers who played last year returning this season, Stanford fans can expect much stabler first and second units to stop offenses.

Last year, it was Peter Kalambayi, Joey Alfieri, Kevin Palma and Bobby Okereke that started at linebacker for Stanford. Although all four are returning, the Cardinal will switch it up a bit for at least the first game of the season.

In the depth chart for the opener against Rice, Stanford lists Kalambayi and Casey Toohill as the starting outside linebackers, while Okereke and Sean Barton will start inside.

The decision to give starting jobs to new players points to one conclusion: competition at the linebacker position must be immense.

While Kalambayi and Okereke are familiar with being starters, Toohill and Barton will take first rotation snaps for the first time in Australia. Meanwhile, Alfieri, Palma, Mustafa Branch, Jordan Fox and Curtis Robinson all figure to get some snaps to prevent the first unit from running out of gas. And although they aren’t on the depth chart, Mike Tyler and Jordan Perez are both experienced enough to step in should someone get injured.

In summation, the Stanford linebackers bring to mind one word: depth. With all four of last year’s starters returning and a host of others with experience joining them, this is an intimidating group of players that have the potential to make this a scary defense for opposing teams. It’s safe to say that the linebacker unit is in good hands.

Who’s returning?

Peter Kalambayi (OLB) Coming back for his final year and starting the season on the watch list for The Butkus Award, Kalambayi has no question marks associated with him. Last year, he tallied 45 tackles and 3.5 sacks as he started all 13 games at OLB1. About to start his second year as a team captain, Kalambayi is one of the strongest leaders on the team, and he’ll be the voice for the linebacker unit that Blake Martinez was two years ago. Some of his standout performances last season, particularly in The Big Game at Cal, were the best performances by the defense all year, and that’s not a coincidence. When he can get to quarterbacks quickly and take some pressure off the defensive line, the Stanford defense is at its best.

Casey Toohill (OLB) In the eyes of many, Toohill came out of nowhere last year, seeing no action as a freshman before popping up behind Kalambayi on the two-deep at the beginning of last year. He ended up recording 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 11 games, and clearly his spring was impressive enough to earn a starting role over some people with more experience than him. He’ll have big shoes to fill, as Alfieri was a strong counterpart to Kalambayi on the outside.

Bobby Okereke (ILB) It’s always exciting to hear that a player has looked great all offseason, and it seems like Stanford coaches have been saying that about Bobby Okereke for years. Back in spring, Shaw said Okereke was “kind of putting on a show, really since the beginning of the spring,” adding that he was “really excited about his progress. ”After recording 41 tackles last year and looking particularly good in the Sun Bowl, Okereke will start at inside linebacker with high expectations, and this may be a breakout year for him.

Sean Barton (ILB) – Barton earning the starting role over fifth-year senior Kevin Palma will be surprising to many, but Barton has impressed on the field throughout his Stanford career. He played both safety and linebacker in high school, and he brings the quickness and ability to read the field that is necessary to play either position. His 5.5 tackles-for-loss (TFL) last season were the most out of anyone who didn’t start, and that number will certainly go up this year.

Joey Alfieri (ILB) Alfieri made a huge jump last year during his junior season and is ready to reach elite status during his senior campaign (and draw the attention of some NFL scouts in the process). With 51 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 5 sacks and 2 interceptions, Alfieri demonstrated his ability to make big plays in all parts of the field. The one big question mark will be how he makes the switch from outside to inside linebacker. The switch may point to Lance Anderson trying to get a little more depth on the inside, and although he’s currently listed second on the depth chart, Alfieri will get plenty of snaps in the inside rotation.

Kevin Palma (ILB) As a fifth-year senior, Palma brings even more experience to the linebacker position for Stanford. He’s tallied 84 tackles over the past two years, and has seen steady improvement along the way. Last year, he received an All-Pac-12 honorable mention, and this year, he’ll bring a very seasoned presence to the second unit.

Mustafa Branch (ILB) At 5-foot-11, Branch is the smallest linebacker in Stanford’s unit, but that has never really stopped him from being a productive contributor for the defense. During his freshman year, when Stanford’s linebacking corps was loaded with talent, Branch played in all 14 of the Cardinal’s games, and he became even more productive during his sophomore year. He’s due for one more year of rotating in before competing for a starting job next year.

Curtis Robinson (OLB) It’s always a rare occurrence for Stanford to play a true freshman, and it usually speaks volumes to how much skill and intelligence they can bring to the position despite their youth. Robinson featured in 13 of Stanford’s games last season, and he looks primed to take on a bigger role this year, coming in after Kalambayi on the depth chart for the OLB1 position.

Mike Tyler (OLB) At 6-foot-5, Tyler is the tallest linebacker in the crowded rotation, and as he came to Stanford as a defensive end, his journey to the OLB position has been an interesting one. The fifth-year senior has always been good at seeking out sacks and figures to have a good final year for the Cardinal should he crack the depth chart.

Jordan Perez (ILB) Perez played in 12 of Stanford’s games last year and recorded 28 tackles. With five inside linebackers ahead of him on the depth chart, it looks unlikely that he’ll play any more than he did last year, but more experience at the position is certainly not a bad thing.

Newcomers to watch for:

Jordan Fox (OLB)Fox is the only linebacker on the depth chart who has never played a snap. It’s clear from above that there are no shortage of players who have taken snaps for Stanford, which makes Fox being named the second string outside linebacker all the more impressive. He’ll be perhaps the most interesting player to watch in the opener against Rice.

Key departures

Noor Davis (ILB) Injuries prevented Davis from becoming the game-changing player that Stanford thought he would be when he was recruited out of high school, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t valuable for Stanford. He recorded 32 tackles last year and provided some consistency at inside linebacker when Kevin Palma was out. Things worked out well for Davis, as he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Viking last month.

Craig Jones (ILB) Jones may not have been a huge factor for the Cardinal last year, but he did play in all 13 games and contributed to that linebacker depth that was so crucial. He’ll be remembered for his toughness, for one of the greatest walk-on scholarship videos in recent memory, and for being a beloved five-year player on the team.


Depth Chart for opener against Rice


Peter Kalambayi

Curtis Robinson


Casey Toohill

Jordan Fox


Bobby Okereke

Joey Alfieri


Sean Barton

Kevin Palma

-or- Mustafa Branch


Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’

Sandip Srinivas '18 is the Football Editor, a sports desk editor and a beat writer for men's basketball and football at The Stanford Daily. Sandip is a sophomore from Belmont, California that roots for the San Francisco Giants during even years and roots for Steph Curry year-round. He is majoring in Symbolic Systems and can be contacted via email at sandips 'at'

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